Helping communities in Southeast Asia’s Lower Mekong Basin adapt to a changing climate requires a careful balancing act between scientific information and local knowledge. To create that balance, the USAID Mekong Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change project develops adaptation plans with local communities and non-governmental organizations to help implement plans that benefit more than 28,000 people in rural areas of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This is essential because floods, rising seas and drought can ravage this Southeast Asian river delta that is a source of income, food and transportation for many. However, very few who live in the countryside are prepared to deal with the long-term impact of climate change. As a partner in the project, WRI documented a four-step process developed by USAID Mekong ARCC that integrates local and scientific data to develop adaptation plans, and revealed lessons on implementing the four-step process.

Four Steps to Develop Community Based Adaptation Plans

Here are four steps that have been taken by USAID Mekong ARCC to help design community climate adaptation plans:

  • Step 1: Create scientific climate studies with information on climate hazards and projections. In the Lower Mekong, this data came from the USAID Mekong ARCC Climate Study. International Centre for Environmental Management conducted vulnerability assessments in the Lower Mekong Basin to understand past and current climate impacts and provided climate projections until 2050.

  • Step 2: Help local residents develop community climate stories by identifying a community’s financial, physical and natural assets; mapping an annual agricultural production cycle and overlaying this with the climate calendar, and describing trends in both climate and non-climate hazards.

  • Step 3: Merge scientific and community knowledge through discussions between project implementers and local residents. Discussions of the scientific and community climate stories lead to a shared understanding of the basis for climate adaptation plans.

  • Step 4: Plan for the near-, middle- and long-term through outcome mapping. Outcome mapping is a planning process that identifies what community members want to see now, five years from now and 35 years from now.

Lessons Learned on Implementing the Four Steps to Developing Adaptation Plans

  • Getting community members involved empowers them to design their own adaptation plans. Communities across the Mekong involved in co-designing adaptation plans have been able to participate in the process of designing their own adaptation plans, which has led to the empowerment community members. Being able to participate and be empowered to take control of ones future plans does not happen automatically. In Lao PDR, women were not able to easily participate in planning due to cultural norms that do not support public engagement. Therefore, in order to empower women, female project implementers spoke to women only groups to ensure women’s voices were heard and incorporated into plans.

  • Communicating with communities about climate change takes time and varied strategies. Repeated visits to field sites by project implementers and the use of powerful communication methods remind community members about the necessity of planning for the risks posed by climate change. Methods could include diagrams, videos, and “edu-tainment”, which is a mix of singing interwoven with messages on climate change. The effectiveness of repeated visits over time and powerful communication strategies such as diagrams enabled community members in Lao PDR to learn from scientific climate studies that diseases affecting rainfed rice would be more problematic in the future than the community climate stories suggested. This scientific understanding through powerful engagement and communication methods used by project implementers empowered those in Lao PDR to develop appropriate adaptation plans.

  • Planning for long-term future adaptation is possible by using current, tangible issues. Long-term planning is a difficult task since the future is uncertain. To enable community members to engage in the process of long-term planning through outcome maps, project implementers questioned community members how they saw their children’s futures five years from now to 35 years from now. Because children’s futures are important to community members involved in the planning process, they were able to use that as a tangible issue to plan ahead, keeping in mind climate hazards they face now and in the coming decades.

  • Local climate studies are critical for designing adaptation plans. Because many scientific climate studies cannot be downscaled to the local level, scientific climate studies were supplemented by local community vulnerability assessments at all sites. For instance, in Vietnam, the scientific climate story focused on fresh water as a provincial issue, while this was not a concern for coastal residents, who saw sea level rise and salt water intrusion as larger threats. To supplement the scientific climate studies, project implementers included local vulnerability assessments and scientific studies on present and future salinity, which helped local participants develop adaptation plans.

Developing community adaptation plans is challenging, and requires a team of committed scientists, project implementers and community members who are willing to work together to understand the local impacts of climate change. The long process of merging scientific and community knowledge creates an integrated understanding that can produce an adaptation plan that is both informed by science and relevant to community members who will be implementing it. The lessons from the four steps taken to develop adaptation plans suggest that the process is empowering, giving communities the power to engage and take charge of the way they make their lives more resilient to a changing climate.